By Emma Urofsky & Robbie M Parks
Public green spaces are cornerstones of our communities. Some, like Central Park, have become cultural icons, distinguishing landmarks. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, public green spaces also confer health benefits to those who make use of them. However, these spaces are not equitably accessible to all. Low-income communities and communities of color face many barriers to accessing public green spaces. These barriers, created largely by systemic racism, have a long history in New York City (NYC). Over time, they have manifested in many forms, yet when examined together they reveal a clear pattern of environmental injustice.
For instance, Central Park itself has racism in its roots and is an early example of this pattern. The creation of the world-renowned park was motivated by white wealthy New Yorkers who traveled to Europe in the 1800s and saw emerging, popular public green spaces, and decided their city needed “a park of that stature.” The New York State Legislature seized 775 acres of land to create the park, but within this plot of land was a thriving, predominantly Black/African American community called Seneca Village (Figure 1).
Founded in 1825 by a Black man named Andrew Williams, Seneca Village quickly grew into a vibrant, well-off community complete with skilled craftsmen, churches, and a school. Compared to the rampant violence of racism in the urban center on the southern end of Manhattan, Seneca Village was a peaceful home to free Black/African Americans and German and Irish immigrants. Knowing it would be difficult for those wanting to build Central Park to garner public support for destroying such a prosperous place, the city’s newspapers – supported by wealthy white business owners – started a campaign to slander the community.
Harnessing racist ideology, the campaign was successful, and the City was able to seize the land through eminent domain with little opposition beyond that of the residents who were displaced. The park’s creation came at the direct expense of Black/African Americans and immigrants, and is part of the even longer history of settler colonialism on this continent. The history of Seneca Village reveals how the roots of environmental injustice in NYC, specifically manifested in the inaccessibility of public green spaces to marginalized communities, lies in the inception of one of the defining landmarks of this city.
There have certainly been more recent instances of access to public green spaces being denied to low-income communities and communities of color, and as times have changed, so have the ways in which barriers to access have been constructed. For instance, nearly a century after Seneca Village was destroyed, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation’s practice of categorizing neighborhoods by the perceived risk of real estate investments, based largely on racial demographics, demarcated – or “redlined” – communities of color as hazardous. Those redlined communities remain, to this day, low-to-moderate-income communities of color, underserved in resources including green spaces.
A recent study demonstrates how the legacy of historically racist housing policy, like redlining, prevails today in the form of disproportionate exposure to extreme heat events. The urban heat island effect, a phenomenon in which urban areas experience more extreme heat than surrounding areas, is becoming more prevalent, meaning extreme heat events are becoming more intense and more frequent. One benefit of green space is the relief vegetation and shade provide from dangerously high temperatures. The lack of green space in these neighborhoods is a main reason for the observed, unjust exposure to dangerous heat.
As Figure 2 illustrates, most of Northern Manhattan was redlined, specifically Central and East Harlem. Today, 85.3 percent of Central Harlem residents and 85.8 percent of East Harlem residents are people of color. These same neighborhoods are also among the most heat-vulnerable, as depicted in Figure 3. In NYC, as in other urban areas, the dangers of extreme heat are compounded by the detrimental impacts of racism and poverty on human health, resulting in low-income communities and communities of color being the most vulnerable and the most exposed to the urban heat island effect.
Another study examined residential demographics and how urban green spaces in the US have changed over time, which revealed that the inequity in access to public green spaces in Northern Manhattan is not unique. Rather, it is part of a much larger, prevailing trend. Between 2001 and 2011, largely white areas experienced an increase in greenness, whereas areas with greater proportions of people of color experienced a decrease.
Northern Manhattan is home to beautiful parks, but many less visible barriers remain, limiting access to these spaces for surrounding residents. Another recent analysis revealed “parks serving primarily nonwhite populations are half the size of parks that serve majority white populations and are five times more crowded.” This poses significant safety challenges to urban residents of color who are turning to these public green spaces to practice social distancing and cool down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, people of color may be deterred from spending time in green spaces by fear of unfair treatment by police. Other occupants of the green space, namely white people, also pose potential threats to the safety of people of color, as demonstrated by the recent example of Amy Cooper threatening Christian Cooper in Central Park.
Equitable access to public green spaces is a critical component of both social and environmental justice. The health and well-being of the most vulnerable populations in NYC depend on it. This is not lost on City officials, undoubtedly due to the hard work and organizing of grassroots community efforts. Launched in 2017, the Cool Neighborhoods NYC program plans to curb the effects of extreme heat in part by planting more trees and implementing more green infrastructure. The success of this initiative hinges on whether the green infrastructure is made accessible to and thus benefits existing communities, or whether it facilitates gentrification of the targeted neighborhoods, contributing to the legacy of displacing Black/African American and brown people to create public green spaces in NYC.
Emma Urofsky is a sustainable development student at Columbia University. Passionate about people and the planet, she hopes to focus her work on grassroots urban sustainability.
Robbie M Parks is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. He is primarily interested in understanding the impact that climate, weather, and air pollution has on mortality, nutrition and disease outcomes, and how these impacts may be different in sub-groups of a population. He is also interested in developing new statistical methods relevant to these concerns. He aims to use his research capacity to pursue linked goals of social and climate justice.